The Amazon is many things:
- 9 Nations
- 20% of the world’s global oxygen
- 400 Amazonian tribes
- Millions of species of insects, animals and birds many still yet to be discovered
- 2,100,000 sq miles of the most biodiverse, tropical rainforest the world has ever seen
- One irreplaceable, epic ecosystem.
And we’re annihilating it.
How long has this been going on?
Humans have always had an impact on their local ecosystems, wherever they have gone in the world without exception. We sometimes reflect that ancient humans lived in harmony with their environments, but this has never been true. We have always attempted, and succeeded in hunting and farming our way to preeminence. The first group of titans to fall under our knife was the megafauna (literally mega-sized animals). They once roamed vast human-free landscapes the world over and were quickly massacred by us wherever we encountered them. A car-sized slab of meat slowly wandering the landscape is a pretty tempting proposition for your standard hunter-gather.
However our violent relationship with the natural world has, for most of human history, tended to have been fairly limited or restrained in many ways. After all there are only so many trees that a man, woman or child (or tribe) can physically cut down and only so many wild animals that humans could eat, though we’ve done pretty well at eating most of them. Large scale destruction at the hands of us humans has happened slowly and over several hundreds and thousands of years. Whilst we have invaded and dominated the ecosystems in which we lived, we never set out to completely annihilate them and the natural world has, for better or worse, been able to adapt, in some ways, to our onslaught.
Fast forward in time and, as the industrial and technological revolution progressed and capitalism took over, by the latter half of the 20th Century industrial activities and large scale, industrial sized mega-farms had quickly taken root at a frightening, breakneck speed. Other countries have catapulted themselves forward by making the most of their natural resources and have demonstrated a long history or razing their forests to the ground and taking full advantage of all of the land and resources available to them. So, why shouldn’t Brazil?
There is just one small problem, this huge piece of tropical rainforest, vital to the health of the world, is in the way. Which means there has been a constant political debate in Brazil, by far the largest steward of Amazonian rainforest in South America, about whether or not they have the right to cut down these trees.
This debate goes to the heart of the environmental crisis. Should development and economic progress to enrich societies and create human wealth be at the expense of some of the most precious wildernesses in the natural world. Unfortunately the world has not progressed equally and oftentimes it is the richer, wealthier countries, the ones who historically have dominated the world and who have already destroyed their own wildernesses, that end up lecturing those countries with large wild places remaining. Is this hypocritical or a genuine desire to save the last great bastions of wilderness?
It’s a question many Brazilians will ponder. It can be difficult to ascertain the importance of the Amazon when you’ve grown up with it on your doorstep. The current indifference of the political leadership to its protection most likely stems from a common belief that Brazilians should be allowed to plunder their natural resources, as many other countries around the world have done, including those in Europe and America. But it could also be true that many see the Amazon as a vast, untapped wilderness that can take a little pain here and there.
When you live in a country that includes a vast rainforest taking up most of the land; cutting some of it down perhaps doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. This view has been reflected in the lurch of Brazilian politics to the right; the election of a right-wing government has facilitated the destruction of the Amazon and whilst it can be said that trees have been cut down for as long as humans have lived there this destruction has been taken to a new industrial level which has been in operation since the 1970s until today. The concern is that if thousands of Brazilians cut just ‘some’ of the rainforest down the cumulative effect could could rapidly destroy millions of years worth of rainforest growth and evolution.
Now, over ¾ of the deforestation that occurs is to make way for the hungry mouths of cattle, which in turn make way for the hungry mouths of us. Soy farming is also another land-hungry industry and many of the products generated from these farms make their way to European markets.
Dams, mineral extraction, road building and construction are also adding to the destruction of the Amazon and whilst there was a reduction in deforestation from 2004 to 2012, the level of destruction has again since soared.
Why is the Amazon so important?
It may seem like a remote, distant part of the world but as the Amazon burns and the forest is destroyed scientific research continues to uncover the essential ties that link the health of the Amazon to the rest of the world.
The lungs of the Earth
The Amazon is often called the “lungs of the Earth” and it’s easy to see why. This massive, living, breathing ecosystem is responsible for more than 20% of the world’s production of oxygen. It provides a continuous, never-ending (whilst it’s still standing) service literally pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, turning it into growth, wood and plant life, and new forest, and then releasing oxygen in exchange.
This is the oxygen we breathe to live. An assault on the Amazon is an assault every single person alive in the world today.
Once the rainforest is cut down it is then cleared and replaced with farmland, usually huge, sprawling cattle ranches. Scientists are beginning to understand the global impact of farming on the environment and especially the levels of CO2 and methane that cows can be responsible for releasing into the atmosphere. Suddenly what was once a carbon sink, helping us in the fight against global warming, has been transformed, almost overnight, into a source of carbon and other potent greenhouse gases, like methane, that will accelerate the global warming crisis.
Tropical forests do more than just absorb CO2. Water is continually released through a process called evapotranspiration (evaporation and plant transpiration) by the stomata within the leaves of each and every plant. This process also has huge benefits in our urban areas and is a key reason why we should plant millions of trees across our cities.
In the Amazon this vast exchange of water influences local, national and international weather patterns. The regional climate depends on this cycle and deforestation removes both the cycle and the moisture from the ecosystem, producing a dry, arable farm-land that is at risk of turning what was once pristine rainforest into a dust bowl not even productive for human agriculture.
There has been concern raised by Brazil’s NAtional Institute for Space Research (INPE) that a drying of the Amazon is reducing the forests ability to recover from fire inflicted damage. Carlos Peres, a biologist at the University of East Anglia reinforces this view, stating:
Not so long ago it was thought that Amazonian forests and other tropical rainforest regions were completely immune to fires thanks to the high moisture content of the undergrowth beneath the protection of the canopy tree cover. But the severe droughts of 1997-98, 2005, 2010, and currently a large number of wildfires across northern Brazil have forever changed this perceptionCarlos Peres, University of East Anglia
The Amazon could cure disease
Over 40% of all medicines are derived from plants and with less than 1% of the flowering plants in the Amazon studied by science, there’s a strong chance that the Amazon rainforest is an untapped medicine cabinet. The Indigenous people that make up the Amazon’s 400 tribes have perfected their use of the plants of the Amazon.
But the potential to cure serious diseases could slip under the radar if we destroy the delicate ecosystems before scientists have even had a chance to study them.
Brazil’s role – Hero or villain?
Ever since I can remember the size of a football pitch has been used to provide a metric for measuring the scale of deforestation in the Amazon per hour/day; but this doesn’t give you a handle on the reasons why the destruction is occurring and it simply becomes a statistic that doesn’t communicate the true scale of what’s happening.
The rate of deforestation has soared in just a few decades. An area the size of England and Wales is lost every year, that equates to an area the size of greater London lost every month. And a football pitch is gone every minute. Gone forever.
We can now measure quite precisely the rate of deforestation as it can monitored from space. Powerful NASA Satellites have been capturing images unfolding tragedy and the ensuing toxic air, threatening Brazilian cities and citizens directly. An upsurge in respiratory problems have been reported as far as Sao Paulo, 1,700 miles away and the health of individuals is now being impacted directly in the pursuit of profits and the ongoing environmental armageddon.
So what has been the role of Brazilian individuals, Brazilian society, cities, and the Governments that they have elected?
In essence arsonists in the employment of Brazilian loggers, ranchers and cattle-farmers have been setting fire to large parts of the Amazon to destroy the forest and make way for crops and cattle pastures.
These are the primary drivers of deforestation in the Amazon. And it’s backed up by scientific evidence. Research has been conducted in order to understand the drivers of deforestation and the results show the collective destructive power of thousands of small-holders who believe that the Brazilian Government has given them a greenlight.
Large scale studies show:
that large-scale cattle ranching is the main cause of deforestation in the Transamazon Highway region, but also that smallholders have the capacity to improve their land use efficiency and decrease deforestation rates while creating a stable landscape composed by a mosaic of different land use elements embedded in a forest matrix.”
“an understanding of forest conservation as ‘‘limited use’’ of the forested landscape, and of family agriculture as a tool for ‘‘productive conservation’’ (Perz, 2004). In this sense, pro-smallholder policies, at least in areas hosting adequate local conditions, could cooperate in deforestation alleviation with the already well-known conservation effects of the creation of reserves (Nepstad et al., 2006), generating important synergies for example through the creation of outer buffer areas.”
This study was published in 2012 and since then Brazilian politics has taken a lurch sideways. The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazilian President in 2018 has paved the way for an environmental reckoning in Brazil.
Bolsonaro has discussed creating a highway through the Amazon and barring nongovernmental organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund from the country, as reported by The Guardian Newspaper.
Dubbed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ Bolsonaro has rapidly dismantled the Brazilian’s governments institutions and tools for controlling and limiting the destruction of the Amazon and by doing so, he has given a clear signal to the countless small-holders and loggers that they will not face criminal charges or fines if they continue to destroy the lungs of the Earth. Christian Poirier, the program director of Amazon Watch, stated soon after Bolsanaro’s election:
Bolsonaro’s victory represents a profound setback for human rights and ecological preservation in the world’s fourth largest democracy, with particularly drastic implications for the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous and traditional communities.
“His reckless plans to industrialize the Amazon in concert with Brazilian and international agribusiness and mining sectors will bring untold destruction to the planet’s largest rainforest and the communities who call it home and spell disaster for the global climate.”Christian Poirier, Amazon Watch Program Director
This rapid change in Brazil’s Government and it’s policies is institutionalising the annihilation of the Amazon. It may be the small-holders and loggers who are physically cutting down the trees, but it’s only because they feel they can now do it without fear of reprisal or punishment from the authorities that the staggering scale of this underfolding catastrophe.
There is a looming global crisis brewing in Brazil and floating above it all, pulling the strings, and orchestrating this insidious tragedy is the face of Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil.
The Irreversible Ecological Tipping Point
What’s even more concerning is the possibility of the Amazon approaching a cliff edge in which human-induced destruction could help to push it over the edge.
Researchers, Professors Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre have been studying the Amazon for decades, as early as 1965, and they have identified in Amazon Tipping Point a looming point in which the Amazon switches. A whole system of complex changes could kick into gear which mean that the Amazon, instead of helping to cool the world, could begin to dry-out and in effect start to eat itself, which would spell ecological disaster for Brazil, South America and the wider world.
“We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.
The severity of the droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015-16 could well represent the first flickers of this ecological tipping point. These events, together with the severe floods of 2009, 2012 (and 2014 over SW Amazonia), suggest that the whole system is oscillating.”Professors Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Amazon Tipping Point
“The hydrological cycle of the Amazon is fundamental to human well-being in Brazil and adjacent South America.”Professors Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Amazon Tipping Point
The concern is that as the Amazon transforms to savannah or scrubland, or even drier conditions, there will be a catastrophic loss of the rainforest as a massive carbon sink. In addition to the huge amount of biodiversity that would be lost, the loss of the rainforest itself would accelerate our journey to a warmer world.
Because it’s not just the ability of the standing trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow; it’s the millions of years of stored carbon in the ground and the forest itself that could be released into the global atmosphere once that forest is gone.
The Amazon rainforest straddles 9 nations but it’s a living, breathing ecosystem that supports all life on Earth. Cutting it down does not just directly damage Brazilians and other South American countries; it threatens the existence of every man, woman and child on the planet.
It’s an ecosystem so great that it transcends human ideas about nation states, governments and influences the entire world. If, as a species, we destroy the Amazon in the pursuit of cheap soy, beef and mahogany furniture we will be eliminating an ecosystem that has existed since before human time began on this planet. The Amazon is more than the canary in the coalmine; it’s a feature of the planet that supports our own existence; it regulates weather patterns, provides clean water and 20% of the oxygen we breath.
If we destroy the Amazon, we are destroying ourselves and the current inaction in battling this environmental disaster means we are teetering dangerously on the edge of the abyss.
What can we do?
The Amazon can only be protected when the Government of Brazil decides it’s worth protecting and that is largely down to the Brazilian people. However, the problem is complex, nuanced and there are things we can do, regardless of where we live in the world, that can put the pressure on Brazilian societies to act.
- Contact your Government, lobby them and ask them what they are doing to pressure the Brazilian Government into protecting the Amazon. If you live in Europe you can contact your MEP here – email them and ask how they are acting to protect the Amazon. A trade deal between South America’s Mercosur bloc of countries and the EU is in the works. Ireland and France have already said they will vote against it. Make sure your country doesn’t support either, until Brazil demonstrates a commitment to protecting the Amazon. It’s your democratic right; your taxes pay their wages.
- Eat Less Meat – according to a report by CNN the fires in the Amazon should hardly come as a surprise as the world’s addiction to a meat-based diet continues to grow. It’s unlikely that ranchers in the Amazon would cut down trees if they did not have a market to sell their meat to and with Brazil accounting for 20% of the global exports of beef and the world’s largest beef exporter. And with cattle contributing to global warming through their CO2 and methane emissions, reducing your consumption of meat could have profound consequences in fighting climate change.
- Support the non-governmental agencies and charities working in Brazil to reduce deforestation and lobby for a change in policies. In ridiculously Bolsanaro has claimed that NGO’s were setting fire to the Amazon in revenge for his relaxation of environmental protections and opposition to the NGOs themselves. Greenpeace has found that up to 80% of deforestation has been caused by the cattle sector in Brazil. If we want to make sure that these issues are consistently brought to the world’s attention then we need to ensure that organisation such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are supported to deliver their mission.
You can support Greenpeace here by signing up to their petition here.
And you can donate to the WWF’s emergency appeal here as well as a whole list of other actions that the WWF recommends we take to put a halt to Amazonian destruction.
Ultimately the aim has to be a change in the mindset and policies of the Brazilian administration. It’s unlikely that a President such as Bolsanaro will change his mind on the environment overnight. We can pressure his government into action, but we need to start recognising that we’re all part of the problem.
Cutting down on the amount of meat, or eliminating it altogether, is a step in the right direction. However, it’s expected that global demand will continue to grow, especially from developing countries as they aspire to the standards and lifestyles of the developed world. Any personal preferences that we practice in our own lives may well be eliminated the appetites of other consumers.
The destruction of the Amazon goes to the heart of the environmental dilemma that societies and governments around the world will increasingly face as they balance the economic prosperity of their citizens against the preservation of the natural world. It’s the reason why development, even sustainable development, is destroying the planet and why we need to think about a new system that enables human societies and natural ecosystems to thrive.
Humans and nature have never been completely at one with each other. The megafauna that once roamed this planet can attest to that. Their demise was also accompanied by huge wildfires as human hunter-gathers flushed them out of their hiding places. And so perhaps the destruction of nature is an inevitable part of what makes us human.
But we also have the power to create, protect, preserve and restore. We can walk down a different path. If we take the time to educate ourselves and future generations about the awesome power and beauty of our great wildernesses; if we allow them to experience these places and to understand collectively they act as the foundation for all life on the planet, then perhaps we can avoid burning down the Earth: our home in the Universe.